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Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel vs. Aluminum Cookware

You’ve purchased and prepped your ingredients, you’ve been through your recipe books and found a winner, and now you’re ready to cook. One problem: you have a cast iron skillet, an aluminum skillet, and a stainless steel skillet all staring you in the face. Which one do you use? Does it actually matter? Some people say that technique is everything in the kitchen – but your cookware matters too.

Different cookware materials each have their strengths depending on what you’re using them for, but is one generally better than the others? We’re going to break down aluminum, cast iron and stainless steel cookware in several areas to get to the bottom of which material is best for cooking.

Versatility

You’ve likely had moments where you’ve cooked things in ways you’re not “supposed to” in the kitchen. Winging it is an important part of staying afloat in the kitchen when something doesn’t go the way you want it or you’re missing an ingredient or piece of cookware. But just because you can cook almost anything on almost anything doesn’t mean you should.

Stainless steel

Stainless steel is used in many professional kitchens for its heat transferability. High-quality stainless steel pans transfer heat incredibly well, which make them extremely effective for cooking. This type of cookware is also non-reactive, which means that you can cook just about anything in them. It’s also worth mentioning that acidic sauces and foods (like marinara sauces or foods with a lot of tomatoes or citrus) will have no effect on the surface of a stainless steel pot or pan, which isn’t the case with cast iron.

Cast iron

Cast iron pots have the unique advantage of being built like tanks. What this means is that you can use them on the stovetop or in the oven, which is useful for searing off meat then baking it through. This type of cookware also retains heat very well once heated through, making it great for keeping food warm after cooking. Cast iron cookware is also well known for its seasoning – in other words, the finish on cast iron achieved by consistent use, which helps flavor your food. Cast iron is the only material capable of building this taste-boosting surface, but it’s important to note that this can be affected by acidic foods. If this happens, you can simply season it again, but it can be a bit of a pain if you cook a lot of acidic foods and end up having to re-season your pan three times a week.

Aluminum

In comparison to the other two materials, aluminum isn’t extremely versatile – this is why it’s mostly used in sheet pans that are to be lined or greased anyway. Aluminum conducts heat extremely well, but it doesn’t always distribute the heat evenly, and it is a soft metal that can be easily dented or scratched, making it best to be used as a cooking surface that won’t be excessively handled.

Durability

We’ve all had pots and pans become unusable for one reason or another. Handles break, surfaces become stained, pans get chipped or bent, etc. Investing in durable cookware can save you not only time and money (in the long run), but it can save you a lot of headaches.

Stainless steel

High-quality stainless steel pans can be considered a once-in-a-lifetime purchase. When cared for properly, stainless steel can last forever – however, that care is intensive. Low-quality stainless steel pans, on the other hand, are flimsy and don’t last long. With stainless steel the motto is this: “the heavier, the better.”

Cast iron

While some stainless steel pans are a once-in-a-lifetime purchase, cast iron pans are a “once” purchase. Cast iron cookware is nothing if not built to last. You could drop a cast iron pan to test its durability, but you would probably damage your floor. Not only are cast iron pans more durable than stainless steel – they don’t require as much upkeep to maintain their usability.

Aluminum

Again, aluminum is bringing up the rear – unless specially treated, aluminum cookware is fragile. Aluminum is a soft metal that can easily be bent or scratched. It is extremely cost-effective, but aluminum cookware will not last you a lifetime.

Care and maintenance

Having durable, versatile cookware is great, but if you have to spend three hours after every meal prep to clean and treat your pots and pans, you’ll likely get sick of them quickly. Convenience is a huge factor to any household item, cookware included. High quality and low maintenance is ideal.

Stainless steel

Stainless steel, though it is often used in professional kitchens, is notorious for being a royal pain to maintain. Scrubbing, scrubbing and more scrubbing is required to get stainless steel clean and blemish free (using a good kitchen degreaser can help with this). Being “stainless”, this material easily shows imperfections and spots that haven’t been perfectly polished.

Cast iron

Being almost the polar opposite of stainless steel on this topic, cast iron is refreshingly easy to maintain. Once seasoned, all it takes to clean cast iron cookware is a wipe down with a damp paper towel. Scrubbing is required in very rare cases since cast iron is naturally non-stick, but on the rare occasions scrubbing is necessary, re-seasoning is required.

Aluminum

Aluminum, due to its inexpensive and thin qualities, is actually very easy to maintain for its lifespan. There is no mirror-finish or special seasoning to maintain, so you can generally clean aluminum cookware pretty quickly and use harsher materials without ruining the finish or seasoning on it.

The final verdict

So, which type of cookware is best? Well, if you’ve read all of the sections above, you’ve probably put together that there isn’t really a single “best” cooking material – instead, there’s “best” for different applications.

With all things considered, cast iron does have more appeal than the other two materials – it’s more durable, easier to clean, and for the most part, will give your food better flavoring. With that said, it’s always good to have more than one type of cookware around the house for different meals (as mentioned above, certain applications are served better by different materials). Plus, different household needs vary, and your needs may be different than the next reader.

Not looking to spend a fortune and just need something easy to maintain? Go for aluminum. Want something to last a lifetime that won’t be affected by different food products? Stainless steel. Want something your grandchildren’s grandchildren will be able to sear a steak on? Cast iron is your choice.

Which type of material do you like best? What have been your experiences with each? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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